I made it.
The alarm went off at 0450 and I immediately stumbled with sleepy eyes to the computer to check the buoys and tides.
The numbers were a little bigger than I would have liked. I was considering backing out, hoping for an easy, small morning. I went back to sleep, setting the alarm for another half hour. I’ll put off the decision. I was a little nervous about my first attempt to get back in.
There is always a reason not to go.
That thought was the first to enter my mind when the alarm went off again.
I need to get back to normal.
The familiar drive, the sky slowly growing light, stopping to pick up John.
I brought both a pair of swim fins and a 5’8″ soft top surfboard. I’d decide which seemed safest when I arrived. Each have their respective risks right now. Swimming and bodysurfing is less likely to produce cuts or concussions, as long as I don’t tangle with the sea floor, but surfing would be easier on the heart as I’m not fighting currents to stay in place. I wouldn’t normally want a soft top, but I figure it’ll minimize my surfing risks while I’m still on blood thinners. Two months to go…
A little nervousness was palpable when I crested the hill for my first view of the ocean. Water rough, things were a bit disorganized. But there was some swell, a few nice rights peeling off the first jetty. Six people were on it already, which didn’t seem appropriate for my my first time back out, so we walked further south to what we call Barnacles or the Bat Cave, a mollusk-encrusted concrete seawall known for fast waves. The end of it facing the ocean is a black tunnel leading into the abyss, easily prompting nightmares about getting washed into it by a large wave. Nobody likes sitting in front of it.
The waves were jacking up, refracting off the north side, barreling and slamming into shallow water. Fun and fast and crazy looking, but definitely not for me today.
The south side was more promising. Better shape, a little less violent. I decided to paddle out on the board, fins would be too much work in all the current.
The water is still warm, I’m taking it easy paddling out, using the the strong current running the sea wall to pull me out faster.
A set is rolling in, I paddle harder to beat the first wave.
Diving deep I drive the nose into it, pushing the tail under with my foot, catching a quick glimpse of a school of sardines shimmering through its face. I emerge out the back to spray from the breaking lip showering down on me, mist golden from the rising sun.
A baptism, a rebirth. And smiles.
I didn’t want the morning to end.
Rest is good, each day a little better than the last. There’s still chest pain and heart inflammation, especially when I shift positions abruptly or go from standing to laying down, but it’s subsiding slowly. My heartrate is a little fast and hard, but it’s regular. Bleeding has stopped and my fever is almost gone. Things are certainly looking up.
There is so much art on my mind. I’d highly recommend the photographers above. In the midst of the troubles I’ve been facing, there’s also been a lot of time to think about other things. New projects, ideas, inspirations. In a day or two I expect I’ll feel well enough for a little time in the studio with some wood or clay. I’m purchasing a new bandsaw today, my mind racing with ideas for wooden utensils to compliment my pottery, namely chopsticks and spoons to accompany bowls. A few large chunks of black walnut sit in my shop, waiting to be formed.
I’m on a ramen kick right now. Not actually eating it, but contemplating whether or not a perfectly cooked bowl of ramen or soba in a quality bowl with good utensils is the ultimate expression of art in my world. Not a creation that hangs on a wall and screams of ideas and for attention, but a collection of processes, skills, and objects that combine to become perfect in the moment. Humble, simple, practical art. Accessibility, functionality, and transience without getting the ego hopelessly involved.
I’m also thinking a lot about alternative surfcraft and bodysurfing. I likely will not be able to ride a surfboard for the next six months because of the blood thinners I’m taking and cutting/concussion risks, but I’m actually looking forward to devoting some serious time and practice to bodysurfing. I have a few ideas for new bodysurfing handplanes to make, maybe even a small paipo (bellyboard). Below is a recent handplane I was able to take out a few times prior to surgery. Carved from cherry with two concave channels on the bottom and finished with a few coats of sanding resin, I liked the fit and feel. I’m still not entirely sold on handplanes though I have fun making them. They allow you to make sections on smaller waves but are a bit of a swimming nuisance in large or steep surf.
The coming months are also going to be a good time to grab my GoPro and strap on some fins to try my hand at surf photography, providing I can keep from getting run over.
I’m on the other side now.
Thursday was my transesophageal echocardiogram (TEE), a scan performed to check for blood clots in my heart prior to surgery, to make sure nothing can get dislodged by a catheter and cause a stroke. If you have a strong fear of choking or things in your throat, which fortunately I’m not too bad at, this one would be a nightmare. I kept telling myself it was practice for sword swallowing. The morning starts with the usual four attempts to get an IV started, the doctor becoming impatient as he keeps returning to find the nurse still struggling. My arm is a bloody mess by the time we have a line going. They’re in a hurry, the blood can wait. In comes the echocardiograph machine with the same operator I remember from a few weeks ago; she remembers me because of my tattoos and expresses hope that I’m not in here because of something she found inside me.
I was under the impression that the TEE was performed with a skinny wire and did a double-take when I saw a two foot long flexible black probe about as thick as my pointer finger. The tech met my look with a shrug and slight smirk. This is probably the part where a lot of people try to run away. I was given a cupful of lidocaine jelly to let sit at the back of my throat and gargle and swallow, followed by a few sprays of another topical anesthesia. Instant panic. Along with not being able to feel whether or not I could swallow, it started to become difficult to feel my own breathing.
And then a shot of sedative in my IV. Whatever it was, it was good. All the fear instantly subsided. I see how people go off the deep end on medical grade drugs. And then another shot. Even better. I melted into the gurney, feeling more relaxed than…ever? Alarm bells should have been going off when a plastic tube and mask were strapped onto my face to hold my mouth open and prevent me from biting down. But I was just too comfortable. When the probe was in the back of my throat they told me to swallow, creating a brief opening so it could be forced down. Once down in my esophagus behind my sternum it was a pretty strange and uncomfortable sensation; literally that of hard metal and plastic rubbing around somewhere deep in my chest. As they flexed and rotated it while scanning my heart I lay there passively in my drug-induced haze, surprisingly not worried about what was being done to me, though it was uncomfortable. An entire life could go by and it wouldn’t bother you in that state. Thirty minutes later the scan was finished and the probe was pulled out with one swift, horrible tug. I was cleared for surgery and they began prepping me for the next morning; some final bloodwork and getting shaved from knees to chest. I was discharged with an incredibly hoarse and raw throat, getting worse as the drugs wore off and the day wore on.
The night before surgery went by in a blur. I did a fairly good job of not thinking about it. The drive to the hospital at 6AM the next day felt a little like a trip to the gallows, filled with complete uncertainty as to what was going to happen. It’s the waiting that makes you crazy. While I stood in line to check in, it was difficult looking at my wife, mother, and sister sitting in the waiting room together. These are my people, the ones that pull together. I couldn’t help feel that while they were obviously there for me, I wouldn’t know it when I was out. They were just as much there for each other and it was good to see them together. Other families filed in, probably five in all, forming little units units of kinship throughout the room. I couldn’t help but notice that all of the patients were men.
One by one, nurses filed in to call respective patients and lead them off to be prepped. Deep breaths, hugs, tears welling behind eyes. Soon it was my turn, led down a hall and to my gurney. Undressing, starting IVs, meeting my nurses, anesthesiologist, my surgeon. I’m told about the procedure, that my surgeon is now opting for cryo-ablation, a process whereby instead of using heat, cold balloons will be inflated around the openings of my pulmonary veins in the left atrium. The extreme cold will destroy any bad electricity, isolating the veins and the bad signals they are producing. It is supposed to carry slightly less risk than using heat. I’m then dutifully reminded of what those risks are, informed that there is a possibility I could end up in open-heart surgery, or worse, due to certain complications. At this point there’s nothing left to do but agree and move on.
Family was let in for a last goodbye. Everything said tends to feel like it falls a little short. There’s not enough that can be said or done by any of us. We can only try. They can’t go down that hall with me so they turn to each other. I make the walk with my head up, escorted by a nurse and anesthesiologist. It’s all-in at this point and I’m feeling alert but not nervous. All I can do is what I’m told.
The surgery room is like the command center of a space station. A bank of a dozen monitors hover over the table in the center. The table is also part machine, a massive rectangular block covered in knobs and controls, likely those to be used to guide the catheters and probes inside me. Machinery, wires, hoses, computers, and tools are everywhere. Drugs that will induce arrhythmia so they can focus in on the electrical sources. The ceiling is covered in cameras and scanning devices. And the system begins to roll, inertia quickly building, orders and confirmations flowing between the staff. My surgeon is getting dressed in the back as nurses and techs hurry in circles around me. Electrodes, patches, IVs…I’m being synced with the machines that surround me, every facet of my physical existence being measured and displayed on a screen. I hear the surgeon beginning an audio recording in the corner with my name and the time and date as nurses begin propping up my arms and padding and securing my head. The anesthesiologist puts an oxygen mask on me and tells me to take a few deep breaths and that if I feel sleepy, to just go with it and keep breathing. Here we go. By my third breath I’m gone.
I was in surgery for seven hours.
Or more precisely, my body was in surgery for seven hours. I don’t know where I was. I am convinced that this is what death is, only without waking and remembering that place of nothingness.
But I do eventually awaken. Images are fading in and out slowly. A nurse talking to me. Lights. Then Lusi and my mother and sister, the curtains of the recovery room. I’m incredibly disoriented and feel like I need to throw up. I here someone very far away tell me the surgery went very well, a vague image of my surgeon standing there, and blackness again. I remember saying goodbye to my mother and sister, more blackness. I start coming to in another area, still fighting nausea. Slowly things start to become more clear. Lusi is beside me. I’m told again that everything went well and the surgeon is very happy with the results, that he believes he wiped out all the bad pathways. I start to become aware of a nagging pain in my chest, pressure, and a feeling of tightness. There is a heavy sandbag on my groin, applying pressure to the catheter sites. Three incisions were made on the left, one larger one on the right. It feels like I’ve been kicked in the groin a few times. I have to stay completely flat for the next six hours. The biggest concern at the moment is making sure I’m not bleeding; the risk is high as I’m on blood thinners. My throat is sore and lungs feel congested. I cough a chunk of blood and become suddenly aware of the discomfort of the urinary catheter that I didn’t know I had. They assure me everything is OK. It’s very difficult to believe them given the circumstances. Six hours is a long time to lay flat and still when your body is wracked by all sorts of strange sensations and pains.
It’s a very long night. I’m exhausted but sleep won’t come. Closing my eyes only causes me to immediately focus on the sensations throughout my body. Instead of relief there seems to be more fear and anxiety on this end of the surgery than when I went in. All of this is apparently based on faith. On letting go. On complete trust that when they tell you things are fine that they are, despite what you may be feeling or fearing. Minutes tick by on the clock. 1AM. 2AM. Lusi stays the night with me. She’s been so good to me throughout all of this, dealing with all my irrationality and fear and anxiety, the sleepless nights, constantly giving. I’d have certainly gone mad without her there, her presence and distraction being entirely necessary to keep from entering a panic. The night is a haze of waiting, nurses taking vitals, and laying there in discomfort until I’m eventually released to go with instructions and a new bag of medications the next day. It is a huge relief to be set free, to be outside and on my way home. It is also a time of great stress as I’m now on my own, left to deal with all the strange feelings and pains without the security of doctors and nurses nearby. It is a little hard to believe that I’m ready to go home given what has just been done to me. Fighting back this fear and anxiety seem to be the the first hurdles of recovery. I’m new to this.
I come home to hand drawn “Welcome Back” signs from my children, who also saw it fit to hide and try to jump out and surprise me, no doubt the doctor recommended way of welcoming home someone who has just had heart surgery.
I lose it, they lose it, and we’re a mass hugs and tears.
And now it’s healing time. Sleeping time. Time to try and overcome anxiety and fatigue and chest pains and simply rest.
A Will Oldham song and video that somehow make too much sense to me right now:
Leading up to the procedure is medication and testing. CT scans and echocardiograms, mapping of my heart for the work to be done. This was my first experience with marker dye; a strange warmth emanating outward from my heart as I heard the machine start pumping fluids into my IV while another machine whirs in circles around me. I’ll be put to sleep for another scan, this one a probe that goes down my esophagus to be closer to the heart to search for clots. I’m not much of a technology aficionado, but I’m more than happy to have it when it comes to this. I have to imagine that 30 years ago the treatment I’m currently receiving would have been out of the question.
I’ve been undergoing Warfarin treatment, an anticoagulant that will help lower my risk of stroke from clots generated by the condition or the procedure. Unfortunately, despite my feeling completely normal, Warfarin essentially turns you into a hemophiliac. I cannot risk cuts, bruises, or especially head injuries/internal bleeding. Activities that take me out of the range of immediate medical help are out, as is surfing due to concussion and cutting risks. I will be on the drug for one month leading up to the procedure and for three months after. Over the course of having my blood tested every two to three days to check its effectiveness, I’ve also found that I have difficult veins; it takes on average three or four sticks with the needle to draw blood. The joy. I look like a junky with heavy bruising in the crooks of both elbows. Fortunately my dosing appears stable and I was cleared today for being tested only once a week. It may not seem like much, but this has been a huge relief. The testing itself is not so bad, though I’m not excited about needles, it’s the fact that I’m constantly in and out of hospital waiting rooms. I’m looking forward to being off of it completely; it’s my understanding that Warfarin originated as a pesticide/rat poison. I can’t help think of the strangeness of this every time I swallow a handful of little pink pills.
It’s strange seeing my blood so thin. Lighter red in color, flowing like water. Small cuts leak for a day, needle holes from a blood draw ooze four an hour.
Surgery is fast approaching, only two days away now. I have found, as advice confirms, that reading on the internet about procedures soon to be performed on you is not helpful, will have no bearing on the outcome, and only serves to heighten one’s anxiety. I cannot say I’ve dealt with this process very well in the last few weeks, slipping into a mild depression. Combined with the Warfarin and the inability to do what I’m used to doing, especially surfing, it’s hard not to feel like something is wrong with me. It serves as a stark reminder of how attached I’ve become to the ocean in recent years. The greatest outlet that I possess for stress release is the one I can’t use…in the time I need to use it the most. While I can swim and bodysurf, I’ve mostly held off. I don’t want an injury or mishap to push my surgery date back. Once I’m through the surgery, I’m more comfortable getting back in the ocean, despite still being on Warfarin for a few months. In many ways I carry guilt that I’m not dealing with this better, thinking of all of those who go through far worse, who have to make decisions that carry far greater risks. I suppose events like this are a learning process. That’s not to say there’s no reason for me to worry, but at times I feel like I’ve been dealt a relatively easy hand compared to….
Compared to what? This is all I know. Comparisons are not helpful, yet I still exist in a mental space fluctuating between guilt and fear and trying to simply let go.
Scott Spitz of Run Fast. Run Vegan. has been a big inspiration to me over the last few weeks. I’ve read his blog for a few years and have been following his recent struggle with stomach cancer. While it feels selfish to find strength by comparing my situation to someone’s that is far worse, his story has certainly helped inspire me to begin to adopt a much more positive, fighting attitude towards what I have to undergo. His resolve is motivating.
I’ve tried my best to begin to foster a more fatalistic attitude, to stop thinking about it and just show up to do what I have to do and take it from there. Again, it is in the quiet spaces that I have a hard time; in dreams and in my thoughts while going to bed. But I am now feeling more ready to do this than I was weeks ago, if anything, to just end the waiting and anxiety. I’m ready to turn the page.